The Art of Bonsai aka Tree Art

Robert Stoll joined Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai in 1989 two months after it started. He and I have something in common. We both have won a bonsai specimen that remains one of our favorites. His will be featured at the club’s upcoming bonsai exhibit while mine lives a quietly on my patio.

Robert Stoll at his work bench explaining bonsai techniques.

Recently I spent some time in the garden of this knowledgeable man while he shared stories of the history of bonsai and what the art means to him. Robert will be displaying three specimens at the show this year- the juniper chinensis procumbens ’Nana’ he has been training since he won it 20 years ago, another ‘Nana’ specimen and a pfitzer juniper that can be traced back to 1901. He dug it up 15 years ago and has been training it ever since.

An example of Penjing style bonsai

Robert has dozens of bonsai but one that caught my eye was a lovely example of Penjeng which is a style that displays an artistic or social statement. This one had a boat “floating” on sand near rocks and a miniature tree. Robert said he wanted to depict the statemen ”At the end of the day everyone needs a safe harbor.”

The word bonsai comes from two Japanese words that provide the most basic definition of this living art form. “Bon” means tray or pot, while “sai” means to plant. One of the reasons we all admire bonsai is how old they look -appearing to be veterans of years of struggle against natural forces. Some are actually hundreds of years old and handed down in families while others look very old utilizing techniques help further this illusion.

There is a technique called jin which causes weathered-looking dieback on a branch and is created by stripping a branch of bark. In nature, deadwood is created when a tree is hit by lightning, exposed to sustained periods of drought or when branches snap due to ice stress, wind or weight of snow. The wood dies off and is bleached by intense sunlight. Robert has many examples of this technique.

“Root over rock” Trident maple

As living things, bonsai are always growing, leaves and stems being pinched, branches wired into natural looking shapes, the trunks thickening and sometimes developing nebari, that most sought-after look when the surface roots of the tree or root flare are visible above the growing medium.

Be inspired and have all your questions answered about growing bonsai from the experts. Don’t miss the upcoming 30h Annual Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai exhibit Saturday and Sunday, April 14 & 15 at the Museum of Art and History at 705 Front Street in Santa Cruz from 10:00am – 5:00pm each day. Entry fee is $5 per person which includes the museum. Kids 12 and under get in free so it’s a great way to spend the day.

Saturday activities include a performance by the Watsonville Taiko, Japanese flower arranging, origami demonstrations and Sumi-e ink painting. On Sunday the Santa Cruz Todo Kai will be performing. There will be a shamisen musical instrument performance and the origami and Semi-e ink demonstrations will be ongoing throughout the day.

Every plant sold or raffled at the show comes with an invitation to the monthly Santa Cruz Bonsai Kai club meetings where new enthusiasts are welcomed and nurtured.
Besides taking in the beautiful bonsai on display you can purchase finished bonsai and starter plants as well as get experienced help with trees purchased. There will be door prizes and refreshments. You might even win the raffle for the demonstration specimen created each day at 2:00 pm by Bonsai Artist Jonas Dupuich on Saturday or if you come to the show on Sunday the one created by Sensei Katsumi Kinoshita.